CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Friday, January 28, 2011

What we can learn from Gabrielle Giffords

Is it possible that some good has come out of the massacre in Tucson? The ugly political discourse has been turned down a notch (at least for now) and the recovery of Gabby Giffords has been inspiring to us all. As much as I have grown weary of the phrase "teachable moment", this certainly is one about the adaptability of the human spirit and how people can potentially grow from even the greatest adversity.

In the days immediately after the Tucson shooting, it looked like the already toxic political atmosphere would only intensify. This frequently happens when a dysfunctional family is upended by a crisis. Each person hunkers down, becoming more entrenched in seeing anyone who does not agree with them as a danger.

So it is hopeful to see that, at least for now, a fragile sense of cooperation has emerged on the political landscape. It is largely symbolic, and the anger is likely to return, but sometimes crises provide unexpected opportunities.

When something traumatic happens -- to a nation, a family, or individual -- it is not always easy to predict what effect the event will have. I have worked with people who disintegrated after a diagnosis of cancer or AIDS, and with others who found a new sense of purpose and serenity. Some of my clients survived brutal childhoods with surprising strength and adaptability, while others become stuck in self-defeating behaviors.

Crises present opportunities to dismantle maladaptive defense mechanisms precisely because they shake us up and demand immediate response. The Chinese symbol for "crisis" consists of two characters -- "danger" and "opportunity."

And yet rigidified coping skills -- developed out of necessity mostly in childhood -- cannot magically be discarded. We created them to protect us from further pain or disappointment. They can become the only way we know to maneuver the world. The key becomes how pervasive and adaptive they are, and how much flexibility there is modify them.

A person who grew up with angry, unpredictable parents might develop a hypervigilant coping style, always on the lookout for danger. He may become flooded with anxiety when faced with smallest adversity.

Someone else with similar parents might become self attacking, punishing herself before anyone else gets a chance. When something goes wrong, she might become so burdened by guilt about her perceived fault in the crisis that she becomes depressed, and unable to cope.

A third person might have dealt with hostile parents by retreating into a world of denial. To this day, he acts as if he has no problems, no negative feelings -- everything will be fine if he just ignores it. In a crisis, his denial may crumble, leaving him flooded with overwhelming feelings. Or his head-in-the-sand coping style may only rigidify, keeping him from acting when decisiveness is called for.

Then again, something else may happen in all three cases. The anxious person may surprise himself by acting in a proactive manner that challenges his view of himself as weak. The guilt-ridden depressive might finally "snap," and allow herself to get angry at someone who is causing her harm, rather than turn it toward herself. The denier might somehow be able to face the situation around him, while maintaining just enough denial to keep him from being flooded. He, too, may find he has more strength than he imagined.

Why does one person collapse while another soars? Some of it has to do with specific factors in early childhood -- what events took place that were out of the child's hands? How did parents help or hinder the child from processing overwhelming information? What are the person's innate personality factors, present at birth and then shaped by the environment? What outside resources does the person have in the present to help him cope with the crisis? Supportive family, friends and community resources can have enormous impact. Psychotherapy can help a person get through the crisis, make sense of what has happened and use it as an opportunity for long-term growth.

As Gabrielle Giffords continues her remarkable recovery, my wish for everyone reading this is that you have the opportunity to face some much more tolerable adversity, some small failure. Challenges can be a blessing. Whoever came up with the Chinese symbol for crisis was a brilliant person, indeed.

-- Eric Sherman, LCSW

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